Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Terence Fretheim and Walter Brueggemann discuss suffering and Christian faith

Posted in Life of Fatih, Terence Fretheim, Walter Brueggemann by Bacho on February 20, 2011

I recently came across a panel discussion between Terence Fretheim and Walter Brueggemann at Luther Seminary.  Provocative, stretching and at times controversial thoughts on the suffering and christian life.  Here are some candid thoughts on our experience of God as we live our lives in this dangerous and messy world:

[Note: WordPress does not allow posting of this type of codes, so I have to refer you to this link.  Scroll down to the panel discussion.  Other videos from that conference are worth watching as well]

Baker’s Dozen of Modern OT Theologies…

Accodring to Wikipedia, “The oldest known source, but questionable explanation for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of  Henry III (1216–1272), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers could be subject to severe punishment. To guard against the punishment of losing a hand to an axe, a baker would give 13 for the price of 12, to be certain of not being known as a cheat. Specifically, the practice of baking 13 items for an intended dozen was insurance against “short measure”, on the basis that one of the 13 could be lost, eaten, burnt, or ruined in some way, leaving the baker with the original legal dozen.”

Lest I be accused of missing any significant work, here is a list on my top thirteen modern OT Theologies:

13.Jacob, Edmund. Theology of the Old Testament. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958.

12.Brueggemann, Walter. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. The Library of Biblical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

11.Clements, Ronald E. Old Testament Theology: A Fresh Approach. Marshalls Theological Library. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978.

10.Vriezen, TH. C. An Outline of Old Testament Theology. Newton, MA: Charles T. Branford Company, 1960.

9.Zimmerli, Walther. Old Testament Theology in Outline. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978.

8.Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Theologies in the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

5.Waltke, Bruce. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. Zondervan, 2007.

6.Rendtorff, Rolf. The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament. Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005.

5.Terrien, Samuel. The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978.

4.Eichrodt, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 1967.

3.von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology, 2 vols.  Westminster John Knox Press , 2001.

2.Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology, 3 vols.  IVP Academic, 2003-2009.

1.Childs, Brevard. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1993.

I know, that this list will not satisfy all.  So if you are tempted to grab your theological axe…What would you would add?  Any of these you would remove?  Why?

Childs vs. Brueggemann: Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture or Neutral Hebrew Text

Earlier I posted a entry about Walter Brueggemann’s struggle to read Brevard Childs.  It is now time to let Childs return the complement.  Here are some of Brevard Childs’ thoughts on Walter Brueggemann’s reading of the book of Isaiah that come from Childs’ book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture.

First, Childs argues that Brueggemann’s postmodern stance lets go of any substantive linking between the Old and New Testaments.  “The relation between the two testament derives not from anything arising from the literal sense of the Old Testament, but stems from the imaginative construal of the New Testament communities…the Hebrew scriptures are largely a disjunctive corpus, often incomprehensible in themselves, requiring human ingenuity to project meaning.”  [295]

Second, Brueggemann’s insistance on the Hebrew Bible being “generative” in the postmodern sense as a text able to produce endless number readings seems to Childs as an assault on Christian understanding of the Bible as Scripture.  “Brueggemann’s use of postmodern categories calls into question the Christian confession of a unified Word of God in an Old and New Testament that together constitute the Christian Bible.  Central to this confession is the belief that the two testaments together reveal the true will of God for his people.  The one redemptive purpose of God from the creation shaped the world’s history toward its eschatological fulfillment according to God’s sovereign power.  To suggest that hebrew scriptures are “neutral” source of imagery waiting to be construed at will by various pluralistic readings strikes at the heart of the Christian faith.”  [296]

Third, Childs opposes what he perceives as Brueggemann’s replacement of the theocentric focus with anthropocentric focus in interpretation.  “Human imagination, not the divine Spirit, is assigned the role of quickening the biblical text.  In contrast, when the early church spoke of the coercion or pressure exerted by the biblical text on the reader, it was a formulation grounded on the conviction that the written Word possessed a voice constantly empowered by God’s Spirit.  (Credo in Spiritum Sanctum.) To confuse the divine Spirit with human imaginative creativity is to introduce a serious distortion into the entire theological discipline.”  [296]

Childs’ final verdict on Brueggemann’s reading of Isaiah as Christian Scripture is sobering, “With much sadness, I am forced to conclude that Walter Brueggemann’s postmodern interpretation of the Old Testament offers a serious break with the entire Christian exegetical tradition that I have sought to pursue from the earliest period to the present.  The struggle to understand the book of Isaiah as Christian scripture is seen by him as largely misplaced, because the attempt to find substantive continuity between the Old and New Testaments, or to discover the Christian gospel prefigured in the Old, are rejected in principle at the outset.”  [294-295]

While it seems that Walter Brueggemann has become a household name in many main-line and evangelical churches Childs’ analysis of Brueggemann’s project invites a serious second look at this new patron saint of the Church.  Indeed Brueggemann is stunning in the breadth of his knowledge, eloquent in his writing and faith-stretching in his evocative and memorable statements, yet it is sad that many in the Church uncritically embrace his writings.  The phrase Prophetic Imagination is very much in vogue in the circles I move.  While the prophetic aspect of Brueggemann’s writings might be very potent and timely, it is the imagination aspect that according to Childs’ analysis that might be sneaking in a Trojan horse into the body of Christ.

Walter Brueggemann on the Book of Isaiah

In his book An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination Bruegemann writes, “Critical study of the book of Isaiah characteristically attends to the details of specific texts that have arisen from many hands in many circumstances.  Such critical study, however, offers an understanding of the book of Isaiah that is fragmented and piecemeal.  As a consequence, the major and demanding interpretive issue of the book of isaiah concerns the relationship of the parts to the intent of the whole.  The parts show the community of Israel in series of crisis. The whole brings all of those parts into coherence in terms of YHWH’s governance.”  [172-173].

Two things stand out here.  First, I like the way he states what is the “major and demanding interpretive issue” in this book.  Understanding the relationship between the parts and the intent of the whole is crucial not just for this book but for the reading of the entire Bible as Christian Scripture.  Second, Brueggeman sees the intent of the whole as YHWH’s governance. I appreciate his focus on the intent of the whole.  Many scholars would doubt any overall intent, so this is a welcome move.  I am not yet sure that YHWH’s governance is that overall rubric that ties this book together.

Walter Brueggemann on Gerhard von Rad

OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, vols. 1 and 2, by Gerhard von Rad, with an introduction by Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. Pp. 502; 496. $29.95 each (paper).

Walter Brueggemann has furnished a good introductory article for those of us not familiar with von Rad’s work yet.

First, Brueggemann provides an insightful background to von Rad’s life that explains the roots of his project.  As a young pastor, von Rad was “formed and shaped by the force, vitality, and liveliness of the work of Barth” (xi).

Second, Brueggemann identifies three features of von Rad’s work that reflect Barth’s influence:

(1) the primal mode of theological statement is narrative. The Credal statements of Deuteronomy 6:20-24, 26:5-6, and Joshua 24:1-13 are at the heart of the Old Testament.

(2) this narrative is testimony, that is, “active, out-loud, public utterance whereby Israel makes its faith claim in an either/or mode of presentation that vigorously counters other religious claims” (xv)

(3) this testimony that is central to the Old Testament is a counter-truth against the claims of “Canaanite religion.” (xiii).

Third, Brueggemann’s main and by and large only criticism of von Rad reflects his own academic seinsitivity.  He decries the fact that von Rad “did not acknowledge the existence of vibrant contemporary Jewish faith communities” (xxvi).

Walter Brueggemann on Childs’ Canonical Approach

I recently came across Walter Brueggemann’s review of Childs’ Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible in Theology Today, vol. 50, No. 2- July 1993.  He has quite a bit of encouraging words for Childs’ magnum opus.  Brueggemann writes, “Childs’s proposal is magisterial in scope, depth, and power, and will provide “nerve” for all of us who seek to do church interpretation.”  Yet there are three significant reservations that he ventures to offer.

First, Brueggemann argues that Childs approach is yet another albeit unacknowledged example of “reader-response” approach.  He writes, “Childs operates from very high ground. That is, the tone is impatiently “apodictic,” (an accusation he makes against H. J. Kraus). Childs proceeds as though “canonical” were a self-evident reading that anyone can see, .because it is there in the text and stands in corrective opposition to all those views Childs regards as mistaken. Indeed, Childs allows for “reader response,” but requires that “canonical restraints” be used and that “reader response be critically tested in light of different witnesses of the whole Bible.” Fair enough. Except that it is of, course, Childs who will determine what is “canonical, so that the “reader response” of other readers is to be corrected by his “canonical.” He seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge that his own “canonical” is also another form of “reader response,” for he proceeds as if the “canonical” is simply there and involves no reader, not even Childs. Thus, for example, his “canonical” conclusion expressed in his repeated and acrimonious dismissal of “so-called liberation theology” is, in my judgment, simply his own contextual response. The outcome is a reading that has all sorts of socio-political implications, though Childs will not or cannot recognize these, for it would jeopardize his high ground.”

Second, closely linked with reader response issue is Brueggemann’s charge that Childs glosses over the textual instabilities in favor of interpretive certitude.  He claims that Childs works with “a heavy dose of hermeneutical innocence.”  He writes, “I once heard Childs lecture on Barth’s post-critical exegetical method and remarked to him that it sounded quite pre-critical as he explicated it. My impression of his presentation of Barth is roughly the same for Childs’s own work here. It is not accidental, I take it, that Childs prefers Calvin above all and prefers to go behind the biblicalism of the eighteenth century, behind the developmentalism of the nineteenth century, and behind the inconvenience of socially conflicted readings of the twentieth century to a reading that is not intellectually impinged upon or disrupted by these cultural realities. I would wish for the same, as it would make our work easier and more readily compelling. I do not believe, however, that we can proceed as if suspicion is not among us in ways that require the argument to be made differently. And here, Childs does not help us much, for he will entertain no suspicions of his own interpretive certitude. I do not for a moment believe that the claims of the Bible are to be conceded to those eroding critical, epistemological categories of more recent time. But I also do not believe we can pretend they are not among us, and, therefore, a response in this kind of innocence is not without its own problems. My own sense is that our interpretive claims must be made more honestly in the fray of epistemological challenge rather than above it, as though the fray was not close at hand. In my judgment, any so-called canonical reading must be made as a competitor to other readings, as an advocacy among many advocacies.  Specifically, Childs regularly recognizes “diversity” in the witnesses but then works promptly and readily toward a unity of witness that is voiced in christological categories. While Childs acknowledges diversity in the witnesses, he insists that the text is stable, that it has a persistent, clear meaning. I submit that this is a reader response decision on Childs’s part to which he is entitled, but it is not self-evident. The notion of the instability of the text, which would impede his ready cognitive closure, is not simply a post-modernist invention but has for a very long time been recognized by careful readers and interpreters. When one arrives at the stability of the text as quickly as does Childs, much of the power, energy, and, I dare say, truth of the text is lost in a kind of reductionism. The notion of instability is not an enemy of faith but, in fact, an honoring of the detail and nuance of the text that dogmatic closure does not easily entertain or allow. Childs’s hermeneutical innocence is not only against our own interpretive context, but more important, against the very character of the text itself, which refuses to be so innocent.”

Brueggemann’s final critique is most complex.  He seems to be protesting against Childs alleged allignment of Biblical theology with its dogmatic cousin.  He writes, “Biblical theology has long had a tense relation with dogmatic-systematic categories. The importance of Childs’s project is that he draws biblical theology very close to dogmatic categories and seems to put biblical theology in the service of dogmatic claims. That intention, however, is not without problem, for it is half of a dialectic without the other half. That is, biblical theology lives not close to the history of religion but to the delicate, detailed rhetorical voice of the text and, therefore, at some distance from dogmatic categories, which notoriously do not honor such detailed voice. Childs’s mode of biblical theology is flatly cognitive, as though the Bible were simply a set of ideas. Thus, he traces the witnesses in assertions that are large and, to my mind, “flattening and homogenizing” (again a criticism made of Kraus). On the one hand, such an approach fails to take seriously the detail of the text, which is not so flat or homogeneous. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how biblical theology can protest against or correct dogmatic claims (a role Reformed faith fully affirms) if it must proceed in such a fashion. In the end, the faith of the church in Jesus Christ is well served by such a procedure, but the liveliness of the biblical God and the unsettling work of the witnesses seem to me to be oddly muted.”

How does one assess Brueggemann’s critique?  I will only offer few amateur observations here.  First, it is interesting that Brueggemann accuses Childs of not writing a book that he would have written himself.  The issues of reader-response approach and hermeneutic of suspicion are very dear to his own heart.  So it is somewhat predictable that he would take issue with Childs here.  Second, Brueggemann’s pejorative language of “flattening and homogenizing” reading vs. “liveliness of the biblical God” itself invites a hermeneutic of suspicion.  Yes, Childs is working out of his set of presuppositions that place him within the context of the faith community.  But so does Brueggemann.  And everyone else.  Yet one wonders what Brueggemann’s context really is and what presuppositions he brings to the table that make him see Childs’ work as flattening and homogenizing?  That “seems to me be to be oddly muted.”